People We’d Like to Hang Out With, Global Province Letter, 22 June 2011

Let’s Take a Meeting.  Every so often we think about the various chaps and ladies we would like to sit with for an afternoon and an evening.  Surely we would knock back several bourbons since the great Walker Percy advises us that it tis a more affable drink than scotch. There is the problem, of course, that many in our chosen band have gone on to meet their maker, so we would have to hire a medium to get the conversation going with them. But then most of the interesting people in this world are just offstage, perhaps a bit eccentric, and certainly too full of gravitas to interest those who drive down Main Street.  Below we share some of these unlikely types with you.

Russell Ackoff, 1919-2000.   He said, “All of our social problems arise out of doing the wrong thing righter.  The more efficient you are at doing the wrong thing, the wronger you become.  It is much better to do the right thing wronger than the wrong thing righter. If you do the right thing wrong and correct it, you get better.”  A management consultant adored even by Peter Drucker, “Mr. Ackoff credited his undergraduate studies in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania with sparking his interest in holistic systems.”  Later he completed his doctorate in the philosophy of science, again at Pennsylvania. Ackoff helped GM work out its OnStar navigation system and taught Anheuser Busch that neither increased advertising nor highbrow taste were the keys to increased market share. New York Times, November 11, 2009, p. A18.

Craig Ferguson.  He’s the host of the very late show on CBS, a wry Scotsman turned American.  His is the only very different evening talk-and-joke, a departure from the witless fare put together by Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien and the rest of the hackneyed lot that cackle their way through the evening.  Recently he has been in Paris and its environs putting together August episodes for his show, to include “impersonating Marie-Antoinette’s lover,” once again proving himself the most intelligent zany around.  One lady of our acquaintance, enduring insomnia and the other rigors of cancer, found that Ferguson was the only performer she could endure in the wee, lonely hours of her thankless nights.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, 1915-2011. Copious writer about Greece and Middle Europe, Patrick Leigh Fermor also had another life as a derring-do, behind the lines commando in World War II.  Some of his exploits were captured in a Dirk Bogarde movie “Ill Met by Moonlight.” But his scholarship was just as remarkable.  He reminds us very much of another World War II hero Bernard Knox who also ventured into enemy territory and who brought to life the literature of ancient Greece.

Michael Graves.  Michael Graves the architect is immobilized by illness in a wheelchair but never stops.  He and his firm turned out innovative structures and he has also fashioned attractive house wares.  But, as well, he has authored warm, sweet paintings.  His works are so luminous, even cheery, that one thinks he has retained a very bearable lightness of being.

Gerald Murphy, 1888-1964.  Who could not want to know the subject of Living Well is the Best Revenge?  He and his wife Sara were great friends of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the Cole Porters, and Ernest Hemingway in Paris of the 1920s.  He had to come back to New York in the ’30s to run Mark Cross, the family’s terribly fine leather goods store during the trials of the Great Depression. Not many knew that Murphy was a fine artist in his own right, and his work was later memorialized in Making It New:  The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy at Williams, Yale, and the Dallas Museum of Art.  The Murphys were more than a footnote to America in Paris.

Edward Woodward, 1930-2009. Woodward was an arresting actor, with the same force of personality as Hugh Laurie who has enjoyed such a run as a brilliant, errant doctor on American TV.  The Guardian said, “Woodward was that rarity in the entertainment world: one who specialised in nothing much, yet appeared to be especially talented in whatever he took on: villains, heroes, characters from melodrama and the musical comedy stage – all were tackled with a superb professionalism.”  He had a fine voice, and surely we would have raised the roof with his melodious timbre if  we ever had that drink together.

Tuxedo Park.  Yes, the most interesting people reside just off stage, not ever quite in the limelight, though they have their meteoric moments.  They make good company, and, oft as not, they’re also the people who can get something done.  When starting a new project or company, it’s best to look for such actors and angels in the wings.

And, as well, we’d best be hunting out stages that are far, far away from the main proscenium.  Jennet Conant’s Tuxedo Park  is perfect proof of this point.  In this account, Conant shows how the eccentric Alfred Lee Loomis and his lab at Tuxedo Park came up with ultra-effective radar which was critical to Allied victory in World War II, and how Loomis and his coterie also pushed the effort that led to the atomic bomb.   Conant’s forbears, ironically enough, were inextricably threaded with the Boston establishment and Harvard, but it was far from the research factories in Cambridge where the critical, pathfinding military research she depicts ascended into orbit.  Discovery takes place in the outré places we overlook.

Many of us tend to look for love in all the wrong places.  Unless we have a bit of luck, we also seek out friends and big ideas and insight into tomorrow in all the wrong places.  Should we fail to range far afield, we are likely, to use Russell Ackoff’s words, to do  “the wrong things righter.” One must get well off the beaten track and meet some of the one-of-a-kind characters whose creator threw away the mold.


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